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On college campuses, a question of what constitutes anti-Semitism

Why We Wrote This

When does political speech become intimidation and harassment? As the Department of Education begins to use a definition of anti-Semitism that includes certain criticisms of Israel, how will the stormy debates on campuses change?

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
A woman walks on the Rutgers University campus in Newark, N.J., April 8, 2013. The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights recently announced it is reopening a discrimination case at Rutgers from more than seven years ago that dealt with anti-Semitism.

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Protesting Israel on campuses has intensified in recent years, and like most of American politics in the current era, the debates have often been heated and volatile. Students host “Israel Apartheid Weeks,” which include “checkpoints” simulating those in occupied Palestinian territories. Professors participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led effort to ostracize Israel and galvanize international pressure to end the occupation. These coincide with increasing incidents of anti-Semitism, including the distribution of racist fliers at the University of California, Davis, and several other colleges earlier this week. Now, the Department of Education plans to reassess how it investigates harassment. In August, it announced it will reopen a complaint about anti-Semitism from 2011 against Rutgers University. Celebrated by some as a step toward creating a better environment for Jewish students, the decision concerns other observers who wonder about the chilling effect the new definition of anti-Semitism being applied may have on free speech. “What this means is that students and professors who want to engage in legitimate conversations about the actions of the state of Israel, the founding of the state, and the idea of the state, are now going to feel threatened,” says Barry Trachtenberg, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wake Forest University.

When Liran Kapoano finally went back to college after taking a hiatus from his studies a few years ago, he never expected to become so embroiled in the rancorous campus controversies over the state of Israel.

He’s conservative – or at least as conservative as a person who grew up in New Jersey can be, he jokes – and strongly pro-Israel, even a Zionist, he says. But when he returned to Rutgers University in his home state about a decade ago, he found a campus climate that was, overall, less-than-welcoming for students with political views like his, he says.

“We went through a period for about two semesters worth of time where it was just like continual, ever-escalating, and in-your-face kind of aggressive anti-Israel stuff,” he says. And at least some of the actions on campus, Mr. Kapoano and others contend, crossed the line from political opposition to Israeli policies into the darker corners of anti-Semitic bigotry.

In August, the Trump administration reopened a complaint advocates helped bring on behalf of Kapoano and other Rutgers students. More than seven years ago, they alleged that Jewish students were subjected to a hostile education environment as students protested the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The Obama administration said it found little evidence for the specifics of the charges, however, and closed the investigation in 2014.

The university has pledged to cooperate, but refers all question to the Department of Education. “There is no place for anti-Semitism or any form of religious intolerance at Rutgers,” officials said in an emailed statement.

Part of the reason the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reopened the complaint is because it recently made use of a general definition of anti-Semitism that policymakers have been developing over the past decade. While the classic anti-Semitism definition includes hatred toward Jewish people and the Jewish religion, the “new” version also incorporates hatred towards the Jewish state. 

The effort to define anti-Semitism more precisely with regard to the state of Israel includes what scholars have generally called the “three Ds” test: Delegitimizing the state of Israel, holding it to a double standard not expected from other democratic states, or otherwise demonizing it as a Jewish state.

Yet many scholars, including a number of Jewish thinkers who’ve worked to crystallize these connections between politics and bigotry, say the “three Ds” definition was never intended to apply to the rough and tumble of academic debate and political engagement on college campuses, where freedom of speech remains a bedrock value critical to the educational process.

“What this means is that students and professors who want to engage in legitimate conversations about the actions of the state of Israel, the founding of the state, and the idea of the state, are now going to feel threatened, feel very hesitant to engage in those questions,” says Barry Trachtenberg, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Universities ... draw students in who are at a moment when they’re trying to figure out their world, which means they’re going to ask questions that are often ill-defined,” he continues. “That may be clumsy. But to demonize them, to say that they’re engaging in illegal actions because they’re questioning historical processes and political decisions by governments, that’s very, very alarming to me.”

Heated campus debates

Protesting Israel on campuses has intensified in recent years, and like most of American politics in the current era, the debates have often been heated and volatile.

Students host “Israel Apartheid Weeks,” which often feature “checkpoints” simulating those in occupied Palestinian territories. Professors and academic departments, too, participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led effort to ostracize Israel and galvanize international pressure to end the occupation.

“Looking at the overall context of the situation, when is [anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiment] actually a camouflage for hatred of Jews?” says Susan Tuchman, director of the Center for Law and Justice at the Zionist Organization of America in New York, and one of attorneys who helped Kapoano and others bring their complaint. “It’s not always easy, especially for non-Jews, to discern when something does cross the line.”

That is just one reason, she says, that the nation’s policymakers and civil rights enforcers need a more clear-cut definition of where that line falls.

“Kids on campuses have to feel safe, they have to feel welcome, and that’s the real issue,” Ms. Tuchman says. “How do we ensure that, and how do we make sure that these students’ legal rights are protected?”

In general, both Europe and the United States have seen a surge in expressions of anti-Semitism. In 2017, the incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses rose to 204, up from 108 in 2016, according to a February report by the Anti-Defamation League. Earlier this week, anti-Semitic flyers were distributed on the University of California, Davis, campus and at several other colleges blaming Jews for protests against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. This fall, two instructors at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, reportedly withheld letters of recommendation from students after they learned they wanted to study in Israel.

Kenneth Marcus, the current head of the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement division, said the agency used the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a fully developed version of the “the Ds” idea, to reexamine the Rutgers case. The US State Department embraced a similar definition in 2010, and a number of government agencies and international organizations have also used it to clarify potential anti-Jewish hatred.

Technically, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act covers on-campus discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or national origin – but not religion. Mr. Marcus and others, however, said that Title VI does cover any discrimination based on “actual or perceived” ancestry or ethnic characteristics, in which those who discriminate might conflate religion and ethnicity. This happens particularly towards Arab Muslims, Sikhs, as well as Jews. This was also the stated policy of the former Bush and Obama administrations. 

Questions about the government’s motives

Critics worry that the Trump administration has applied this definition to education policy not simply as a guideline to clarify the scope of anti-Semitism, but as a weapon to silence criticism of Israel. The BDS movement and events such as apartheid weeks on campuses could now possibly be defined as civil rights violations, critics contend.

“This case at Rutgers University is consistent with the coordinated efforts of multiple interest groups, including the Israeli government, to control and reshape the definition of anti-Semitism, to effectively criminalize criticism of Israeli policies,” says Atalia Omer, professor of religion and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Susan Walsh/AP
Kenneth Marcus speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2017. Mr. Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, announced in August plans to reopen a discrimination case at Rutgers University, prompting debate about the definition of anti-Semitic he is adopting.

The debate about the definition comes at a time when the Trump administration has shaken long-standing traditions of forbearance, transferring the US embassy to Jerusalem in May, even as dozens of Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during protests at the Gaza border.

In September, the US closed the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, and critics say the administration continues to remain suspicious of Muslim Americans in general, as well as the pro-Palestinian movements on American campuses. At the same time, Israel has recently demoted Arabic as an official language, and declared Israel to be “the national home of the Jewish people,” which some critics say challenges its status as a liberal democracy.

Genesis of the definition 

Ken Stern has helped draft previous versions of anti-Semitism definitions based on the "three Ds" idea. Years ago, he and others were charged with addressing the the troubling rise in anti-Semitism around the world, and to help international political bodies have better guidelines to identify a full range of its expressions.

“But the idea of using a definition like this on campus is to me just absolutely deplorable,” says Mr. Stern, a fellow at Bard College’s Human Rights Project in upstate New York. “And what happened is, within a few years after the definition was adopted by [government agencies in Europe], I started seeing examples of the Jewish right trying to use it as a hate speech code.”

Marcus, from the Office for Civil Rights, had long been an activist at the vanguard of conservative efforts to use the “three Ds” definition, particularly to bring complaints against political activities on campuses, Stern and others say.

“They were including in those cases complaints about programs about the occupation, texts the professors used in classes that were being taught, and speakers who were coming to campus to criticize Israel – all clearly protected political speech,” says Stern, an attorney who has successfully litigated civil rights cases in which Jewish students faced hatred and discrimination.

Jewish scholars like Stern, Professor Trachtenberg, and others also point out that efforts to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism on college campuses ignore a critical fact: Many liberal Jews and some ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects, among others, have also criticized the idea of the Jewish state.   

“It is important to note that many Jews increasingly express publicly their criticism of Israeli policies, as well as their gradual unease with Zionist premises,” says Professor Omer, a Jewish-Israeli and author of “Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians.” 

Wrestling with the issues at Rutgers 

Kapoano recalls how he had wrestled, both intellectually and morally, with the issues of the occupied territories in Palestine during his time at Rutgers. The pro-Israel groups he became involved with sponsored an event in which a Palestinian woman described living a life without her father, who had been locked up in Israeli jails her entire life. The event also included an Israeli woman, too, who described the ordeal of losing friends to the actions of a suicide bomber.

He was frustrated that the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups could never co-sponsor events like this, he says – challenging discussions that try to see both sides.

“And I’ll tell you, as someone who is very very much pro Israel, even a Zionist, it was not easy to sit through some of those discussions,” says Kapoano, who now works as a marketing consultant in New Brunswick, N.J. “You know it was a real dose of reality.”

Instead, the climate on campus when he was a student was aggressive, he says. During an event sponsored by the Hillel House chapter on campus, anti-Israel protesters flooded the first three rows of a talk given by an Arab Israeli, disrupting and chanting over his account of living well as a citizen of Israel, Kapoano recalls.

“On the one hand, we all felt attacked by that, because that was like our house,” he says. “Imagine this was happening in your own home, in your own church or temple. And none of the Jewish and pro-Israel students were able to ask any questions.”

And then an event sponsored by a pro-Palestinian group began to single out Jewish students like him who were perceived to be pro-Israel. They tried to charge them, and only them, with a fee to attend the open campus event – which became a key part of the complaint they brought seven years ago.

At the same time, liberal Jewish students have also been subjected to harassment. “I saw those things too, Jewish students who were pro-Palestinian who were called kapos and traitors and also victimized, too,” says Stern.

Which is one reason why campus discussions need to become more critically engaged, says Mehnaz Afridi, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York and the director of its Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center.

Still, she sees a point in the fact that when it comes to the state of Israel, there does seem to be a special focus, if not indeed a double standard that hints at anti-Semitism.

“I’m not saying we should leave the Palestinians out, but I wonder why it’s always the issue of Israel here,” says Professor Afridi. “I mean, for me as a Muslim, honestly, I worry about Myanmar, I worry about the Chinese Muslims, I worry about Syria, or about so many other Muslims who are being killed and tortured,” she says. “I’d like to have a more nuanced conversation about that, too.”

Conservative Jewish students continue to feel that the current climate on campus is one of harassment and intimidation.

“I mean you could call it whatever you want, and they can come up with any academic definitions, or whatever, but when one group of people who happen to have been regularly targeted for centuries are on the receiving end of intimidation and discrimination on campus?” Kapoano says. “Well, that might just be anti-Semitism.”

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